Danger is all around us, but what is it really and how can we objectively judge whether or not it’s significant?
Welcome to the word of risk assessment. It’s probably a term you’ve often heard being bandied about;
How did that pass a risk assessment? or
Has anyone done a risk assessment on that?
Well, something doesn’t pass or fail a risk assessment and the process of undertaking a risk assessment doesn’t necessarily make something safer.
Whether something is ‘dangerous’ or ‘safe’ are probably the two extremes used when people are actually talking about risk without knowing it and so it’s worth familiarising ourselves with the basics.
Essentially, ‘risk’ is the exposure to danger or the likelihood of a hazard to cause harm. I know what you’re thinking – more buzzwords. OK, a ‘hazard’ is a thing that could cause harm, whereas ‘harm’ is the consequence of being exposed to the hazard. Let’s look at a couple of examples;
In the kitchen, a knife is a hazard and the harm from an interaction could be a cut. A puddle of water on the floor could be a hazard and a broken arm from slipping on the floor could be the harm. Lots of things are hazards, but they only have the capacity to do harm when there’s an interaction – a poisonous mushroom is a hazard, but so long as you don’t eat it, there’s no chance of harm.
What is a hazard for one person might not be a hazard for another. For example, a long crack in the road could be a hazard for someone cycling (and the harm could be a serious injury), whereas the same defect might not create a hazard for a lorry driver whose vehicle has wide tyres.
Hazards don’t necessarily have to be something which can cause immediate likelihood of harm, prolonged exposure might be the issue. For example, an air pollution event might not be an immediate hazard, but long term exposure could cause considerable harm
So, how do we assess these risks? Unknowingly, we do this all the time (often called ‘dynamic risk assessment’). When I cycle, do I chance it on the dual-carriageway or do I go the long way round through the park? Do I cross the road at the traffic lights or nip across here? Do I drive within the speed limit, or stick my foot down? We make decisions all the time as we travel around, but we don’t think in depth, we simply consider the hazards and the likelihood of harm occurring.